|Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring|
Summer, Fall, Winter... And Spring,
is a very unusual film. It's from Korea, and has subtitles, but you'll
hardly notice since the characters often go ten or fifteen minutes
without speaking a word. It's basically about the Buddhist philosophy,
and learning to be in harmony with the universe, however you do it. The
film is thoughtful and meditative, and you need to watch it in that
mood, or you'll be very bored. There are long stretches with no dialogue
or human interaction, and you need to find meaning in watching a man
explore the forest, or wash and clean a wooden temple, or prepare food.
The film details perhaps fifty years in the life of a pair of monks in an isolated island monastery. It's just the two of them there, and in the beginning one is a young boy and the other an old man. We see the young man when he is (about) 5, 18, 25, and 60, and see how his life is changing over time, how he is interacting with the world, and so on. He's not Jesus, or Buddha, though. He's not a great man or a teacher, he's just a man, full of fault and sin and confusion, and we witness a life largely filled with solitude and tragedy; but sadness of a kind he (and the viewer) can learn from. It's a very peaceful film, very contemplative, with long stretches of no dialogue at all.
To the scores, with more comments after them.
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... And SpringLooking at the scores on Rotten Tomatoes, I was shocked to see that this one got positive reviews from 85 out of 90 critics. It's at 85% approval rating on Metacritic too. My question though is, "Did they actually like it, or did they say they liked it since admitting to disliking it would mark them as shallow and stupid?"
This film is a bit like your kid's Holiday Play at elementary school. Of course it's not actually any good; no performance involving dozens of disinterested six year olds could ever be; but since it's your kid out there wandering around in a poorly-fitting costume and forgetting his lines, you can't dislike it, or apply the usual critical standards to it. Spring... isn't a children's pageant, but it's so sweet, simple, honest, open, and moving that while it's frequently boring and could clearly be condensed into a five minute short without losing a bit of the plot, you can't admit that without sounding shallow and branding yourself as a short attention span Philistine.
This is the kind of film where there's no dialogue for 10 or 15 minutes at a stretch, while we simply watch a young Buddhist monk wash down a wooden porch, or play with a cat, or throw rocks into a river, or pick flowers from a riverside. It's a visual meditation, and while there is a plot and things that happen, there is always a great deal of downtime in between the plot elements, where the watcher either has a sense of peace and contentedness in watching nature, or you get very bored and want a car chase to begin. There are no car chases.
The plot, such as it is, shows a young boy living with an elderly Buddhist monk on a small pagoda out in the middle of a pond. The valley around their small house is gorgeous and completely wild, and it starts out in the spring, with the young boy exploring the area, learning his few duties and doing the sorts of things young boys do on their own in the woods. That's Spring.
Summer begins a decade or so later, when a mother brings her troubled daughter to live with them. Nature takes its course with two teenagers, and summer ends when the daughter is cured of her malaise and goes away, taking the boy's heart with her.
Fall begins some years later, when the boy is now a man, and when he returns in desperation to the valley and his old master. I'm leaving out the spoiler details here, but events have taken a painful and depressing turn, and Fall ends with the boy/man leaving again, and staying gone for many years.
Winter begins when he returns again, makes amends and sacrifices for his sins, and lives alone for some years until a woman brings her young son to him to raise there in solitude... and thus the cycle continues. We are left to wonder what the original old man did in his life before ending up alone in the tiny monastery, and what experiences shaped his life. You would never guess that the current old man, who was a young boy when the film began, had gone through all that he did before settling on a life of simple solitude.
Overall, it's a moving and powerful film, and while I've given it low scores in a variety of areas, I don't see how it could have been made any other way. It's frequently boring, and if you're watching it just for the plot you'll find the FF button irresistible, but without the long stretches of contemplation and simple observation of events the film wouldn't have any weight or power when it does finally do something. You've just got to book your chair for an hour and a half and let the film happen before you; this is not one you could appreciate watching it with a lot of distractions, or while FF'ing along, or in 30 minute chunks.
If you're curious, here's what happens. Most of it is profoundly sad, and yet meaningful, in a "find peace with the universe" sort of Buddhist way.
Spring: The boy ties a rock on a string around several animals when he's young. The master sees this, waits, and ties a stone on a rope around him that night, then sends him out to free the animals the next day, with the huge stone still lashed to his back. "Go and free that frog, snake, and fish. And if any of them have died, may you carry this stone around your heart all your days." he says, or words to that effect. Only the frog survives, and Spring ends with the broken-hearted sobbing of the young boy as he sees the deaths his thoughtless play has caused.
Summer: The mother leaves her teenaged daughter there, and after several days of great surprise and terror at the sight of her, the now teenaged monk becomes infatuated and prays frantically every time he bumps into the girl. They are soon in love, or at least in lust, and spend most of their time making love in the stream, on the rocks in the sunlight, and so on. The master sees it and does nothing about it, and when after a few weeks the girl is once again happy and cheerful the master takes her away, for she has been cured. The young monk can't let her go though, and goes after her, taking the Buddha statue from the monastery and leaving the old man all alone.
Fall: Years later and the old man is still alone. One day, while looking at the newspaper that came wrapped around some food he bought in the distant town, he sees an article about a man who murdered his wife and fled the city; and it's the young monk, of course. Soon enough the man shows up back at the monastery, still clutching a blood-covered knife, and after screaming and cursing and acting partially insane, he explains that the woman cheated on him and tried to live without him, and that all he ever wanted was her. So he killed her. He does return with the Buddha statue, at least. The monk makes no judgment on this, and does nothing but give the man his old monk's clothing again, and over a few days the man calms down again, painfully cuts his hair back into the short monk's brush cut (using the bloody knife and cutting his hands in the process) and begins to rediscover some peace in his life.
He must do penance though, and after a few days the old monk writes out many, many symbols on the wooden deck of their little island house. He uses a live cat's tail (it's a very patient cat) and black ink for his brush, and covers the deck with symbols in Korean. There were no subtitles for the writing, but it hardly mattered; it was some famous koan of peace and tranquility, they were large calligraphy style symbols, each one more than hand-sized, and there were probably 20 or 25 rows of about 15 characters each. Easily enough to fill your entire living room. The young man wakes while the monk is still painting, and when the monk tells him to carve out each letter with the knife and regain his peace while reading it, the man sets to doing so, though his hands bleed where he holds the knife. He keeps carving, brutally stabbing and hacking the upper layer of wood out of the deck, and all the while the monk keeps writing, and what you think will be a few lines keeps going and going and going, until you can't help but groan in sympathy for the murderer.
Complications arise when two men show up, dressed in modern city clothing. They call for the boat, the old monk rows over to bring them out to the island, and then leap off of it and point guns at the young man, saying they are there to arrest him for murder. He leaps up, brandishing the knife and snarling, clearly about to be shot down, until the old man shouts at him and orders him to continue carving. He does, and as he is on his knees the old man explains to the cops and asks them to let him finish. Proving this is not set in America, they do, sitting down and waiting all night and into the next day, while the man continues carving and hacking. He finally finishes the next day and simply falls over on the deck, on top of his work, and sleeps, utterly exhausted. While he sleeps the monk and the two cops work together to paint in the carved letters with a variety of bright colors, and when the man finally wakes up the next day he's amazed to see all of the decoration. The cops then take him away, he goes peacefully, and when one cop makes to cuff him, the other says that won't be necessary. After he leaves the old monk sets the cat loose on the shore, organizes everything in the house, folds and leaves his robes by the altar, stacks firewood in the boat, sits atop a huge stack of it, and burns himself to ashes while the boat slowly sinks into the pond.
Winter: Years later an old man walks up, white haired and tired, trudging along through the snow. The pond is frozen and he walks over to the old monastery, finding it empty and deserted. He sets to fixing it up, dresses himself in the old monk's robs, and then finds the boat frozen into the pond. Laboriously, using a small axe, he hacks a hole down through inches of ice (and this is real ice out on a real pond; all of the scenery and settings are completely realistic in the film) and scrapes out some of the old man's ashes, which he places in the Buddha statue on the altar. He then ties a huge stone wheel around his waist and drags it up to the top of one of the nearby mountains, struggling along for hours, until he places the stone there, with a statue on top of it, looking down at the pond valley.
Next he sets to cleaning up the monastery, making food, training his body in martial arts, meditating, and so on. Living the simplest of lives, alone and peaceful, clearly happy to be back there after the twenty or so years we imagine he spent in prison for murdering the woman. One day a woman comes to him with a baby boy in swaddling clothes, walking over the ice and all but collapsing in his door. He takes her in and helps her and the child, without a word being spoken. That night the woman slips away, leaving the child behind, but she falls through a hole in the ice and drowns. The monk wakes the next morning when the crying toddler leads him out onto the ice, where he finds the woman's body, fishes her out, and knows that the child is his to raise, thus continuing the cycle that began when he was a tiny child given to the monk. This is the only season that doesn't end with something that made me want to cry, and I actually thought having the mother drown was sort of unnecessary. I guess they wanted to emphasize the permanence of the child's presence; no mom is going to show up and take him back, but I was fine with him being there forever whether she lived or died.
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